What Is an Addiction Counselor?

Ranked as the third best job in social services by US News and World Report, and with job opportunities growing four times faster than the national average, this article explores the ins and outs of becoming an addiction counselor. The content will cover the job responsibilities, hiring requirements, future job market, path to licensure and more.
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We need addiction counselors. Will you answer the call?

According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, about 15 percent of Americans 18 or older needed treatment for substance abuse (now more appropriately called "substance use disorder") in 2020. The same report found that less than 10 percent of people who needed treatment for substance use disorder received it. The need for well-trained counselors who can diagnose, assess and treat addiction is greater than ever—for those who have never received treatment and for the millions of people who benefit from counseling services every day.  

If you're thinking about a counseling career, read on to learn more about what addiction counselors do and how they help to make a difference in peoples' lives.

What do substance abuse/addiction counselors do? 

Addiction counselors, historically referred to as substance abuse counselors, provide expert care and support to people who struggle with a variety of mental health disorders. That usually means a dependence on drugs and alcohol. However, addiction counselors help people manage and overcome other types of addictions as well, such as gambling addiction.

Addiction presents different issues that vary from person to person, so counselors need to tailor their treatment plans to address a variety of needs. They meet regularly with patients to help them recover, and they may work intensely with people in crisis. Many addiction counselors also conduct couples and family therapy sessions, using peer discussion and social reinforcement to promote a healthy recovery process. 

There are a few traits that make counselors particularly effective. For example, a counselor may need to establish trust with their patients or tell difficult truths. It's all part of building a healthy counselor-patient relationship.

Learn about the personality traits of effective counselors.

What are the job requirements and responsibilities for addiction counselors? 

  • Conduct group and individual therapy: As a substance abuse counselor, you may work with patients both individually and in groups, collaborating as part of a multi-disciplinary treatment team. You may also work with families, law enforcement, courts, parole officers or others, depending on the circumstances.
  • Develop individualized treatment plans: Treatment plans address each substance use disorder and need adjusting depending on your patients' progress. This is often done in conjunction with other medical professionals. It's important that treatment plans match the individual needs, readiness and goals of the patient. 
  • Perform assessments: Part of the job will be gathering information about your patients and engaging with them to determine the severity of addiction, readiness for change, existence of co-occurring mental health disorders, problem areas that may affect treatment, and other needs and opportunities.
  • Work with patients to avoid relapse: To help patients maintain their recovery, you'll need to determine risks for relapse and develop prevention plans. This includes helping patients identify their triggers and often working with families to teach them effective ways to support their loved one and cope with addiction. 
  • Refer patients to other support resources: As an addiction counselor, you'll act as a bridge between your patient and other outside resources that will also be vital to recovery. For example, you might refer a patient to an outside drug or alcohol support group, or to clinical care.
  • Keep records: Documentation is essential to helping addiction counselors and medical professionals, as well as patients and families, to track the progress of treatment, and evaluate and refine treatment plans on an ongoing basis. 

Why is addiction counseling important?

Addiction affects the ability of people to work, go to school and enjoy healthy relationships with family and friends. It's a social problem that costs the country hundreds of billions of dollars annually. Tragically, hundreds of thousands of people also lose their lives each year due to drug and alcohol abuse. 

There is no definitive cure for addiction. But there are evidence-based therapies that can help people manage the disease and live a happier, healthier life. For many people affected by addiction, addiction counselors are the vital link to recovery.

Trained substance abuse counselors are experts at understanding the underlying causes of addiction and helping patients learn coping strategies and recognize their unique triggers. Ongoing counseling also helps to prevent relapse or a reoccurrence of symptoms. For all of these reasons, the demand for highly qualified addiction counselors continues to grow. 

What’s the job market like for substance abuse counselors?

Now is a great time to earn your master's and enter the field of addiction counseling. Jobs are expected to grow as more people seek help for addiction. This growth is in large part driven by a surging opioid crisis—a national emergency that's been building for more than 20 years according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Court-ordered therapy is also becoming more common, creating numerous counseling jobs in correctional facilities and halfway houses.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment of substance abuse counselors is projected to grow 23 percent from 2020 to 2030. That's more than four times faster than the national average. As a licensed counselor with a master's degree, you can look forward to a strong job market and reliable employment.   

Learn more about substance abuse counseling careers.

What are the different careers options? 

It's a great idea to narrow down the type of career you hope to pursue. Here's a quick look at some of the professional pathways you might want to explore and the required degrees.

Careers that require a bachelor's degree:

  • Substance abuse counselor
  • Substance abuse prevention coordinator 
  • Social services coordinator
  • Health educator 
  • Correctional treatment specialist

Careers that require a master's degree: 

  • Advanced alcohol and drug counselor
  • Co-occurring disorder counselor 
  • Clinical mental health counseling
  • Private practice therapist 
  • School counselor
  • Social service manager 

Substance abuse careers: Doctoral degree

Depending on your professional goals, you may choose to pursue a PhD after earning your master's degree in counseling. Career opportunities for doctoral-level graduates include:

  • Psychologist
  • Research scientist
  • Postsecondary teacher

Learn more about careers in substance abuse counseling for master's degree graduates?

Where do addiction counselors work?

Addiction counselors work in a variety of professional settings, from community mental health centers to state and federal government agencies. As a licensed addiction and mental health counselor, you can also open your own private counseling practice.

Addiction counselors work in:

  • Hospitals
  • Substance abuse treatment centers 
  • Detox centers
  • Outpatient mental health centers 
  • Sober residences
  • Schools and colleges 
  • Correctional facilities

Find information about salary ranges and earning potential for substance abuse counselors.  

In January 2020, there were more than 14,000 specialized substance abuse treatment facilities in the United States providing counseling, behavioral therapy, medication, case management and other types of care.

How to become an addiction counselor 

Your path to becoming an addiction counselor will vary depending on the requirements of the state where you intend to practice. As a first step, it's a good idea to look up the licensure or certification requirements of your state and use this information to help plan your education.

In many states, you'll need at least a bachelor's degree to practice alcohol and drug counseling. Some states require a master’s. Even if your state doesn’t, earning a master's degree in addiction counseling will increase your job opportunities and grant you more clinical experience. 

Learn more about how to become an addiction counselor.

Is addiction counseling the right career for you? 

No career is more rewarding to those who are driven to help others.

Addiction and mental health counseling is an opportunity to change lives and strengthen communities. It's a chance to give back and make a positive difference in the world, one person at a time. When you see someone you've counseled who has made it to recovery and turned their lives around, the sense of fulfillment is truly incredible. 

Addiction counselors enjoy more than a sense of personal satisfaction. U.S. News and World Report recently ranked substance abuse counselor as #3 in Best Social Services Jobs and #34 in 100 Best Jobs, based on criteria including median salary, unemployment rate, growth and future job prospects.

Become the best counselor you can be 

The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies offers invaluable coursework and training that explores the study and treatment of substance use disorders, as well as mental health and co-occurring disorders. Work closely with full-time faculty, all of whom hold doctoral degrees and bring first-hand knowledge from years of clinical experience, research and teaching. Take classes full time or part time.

More than 99.5 percent of Hazelden Betty Ford graduates passed the licensing/certification examination when they took the test within six months of graduation,* and 92 percent found employment within six months of graduation.** Want to hear firsthand how the Graduate School helps its graduates? Read one of these alumni stories. [internal linking opportunity: alumni stories] 

Learn more about the Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies.

View our on-campus Master's in Addiction Counseling

View our online Master's in Addiction Counseling 

You can also apply here or call 1-651-213-4175 for immediate assistance. 

Learn more about how addiction counseling helps people overcome substance abuse.

National Institute on Drug Abuse: www.drugabuse.gov/related-topics/trends-statistics

U.S. Department of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm

National Institute on Drug Abuse: www.drugabuse.gov/publications/principles-drug-addiction-treatment-research-based-guide-third-edition/drug-addiction-treatment-in-united-states

U.S. News & World Report: https://money.usnews.com/careers/best-jobs/substance-abuse-counselor 

U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics: www.bls.gov/ooh/community-and-social-service/substance-abuse-behavioral-disorder-and-mental-health-counselors.htm

The Hazelden Betty Ford Graduate School of Addiction Studies educates future leaders in addiction counseling who provide evidence-based integrated care for substance use and co-occurring disorders. 

Learn more about our mission, vision and goals.

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